Editor’s Note: Sam Kiley is CNN’s Senior International Correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
For a man so schooled in Sophistry that truth has no meaning, it’s hard to imagine more meaningful words from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson than when he warned that “the consequences for the world are absolutely catastrophic” if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine prevailed in Ukraine.
He’s absolutely right about that. Right too when he described Ukraine as being on a “knife-edge” during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G7 summit in Bavaria this week.
Which is odd. Because Johnson has two things in common with Putin that serve the Russian president’s strategic aims far more than his support for Ukraine threatens them.
Ukrainians are dying for the right to join the European Union – an international body Johnson fought to leave, and that Putin’s worked hard to undermine.
Ukrainians are also seeking the protections afforded by international law – the rules-based global order that Johnson is proudly tearing apart – not unlike the former KGB boss who now runs Russia and who illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine.
The country that has stood up to Putin’s invasion is now feeding its young into a Russian meat grinder that’s slowly chewing its way into territory in the east.
Soldiers – both Ukrainians and foreign volunteers – repeat with ever more anxious voices, that Ukraine is losing its best men. That Russia’s sheer mass is prevailing and above all it needs NATO’s best weapons – and yesterday.
Johnson’s been telling his own nation what “we must steel ourselves for a long war, as Putin resorts to a campaign of attrition, trying to grind down Ukraine by sheer brutality,” in a recent Sunday Times article.
The British Prime Minister has made two pilgrimages to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where he’s promised arms, money, and unwavering diplomatic support for President Volodomyr Zelensky.
“The price of backing down, the price of allowing Putin to succeed, to hack off huge parts of Ukraine, to continue with his program of conquest, that price will be far, far higher. Everybody here understands that,” Johnson said in an interview on the sidelines of the G7 summit.
Ukrainians, he said, are facing real pressures, they’re having to source energy from elsewhere, but they’re doing it and making the effort and making the sacrifice. That’s because they see that the “price for the freedom is worth paying,” he added.
Johnson has long sought to channel Second World War-era British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But he’s convincing very few, no matter how welcome he’s made in Kyiv, that he understands that many of the freedoms Ukrainians seek lie within the EU.
In 2016, Johnson galvanized support for leaving the EU with a mendacious campaign that pledged, erroneously, that £350 billion ($425 billion) of money sent to Europe would come back into the Bank of England.
Johnson promised “sunlit uplands” for the green and pleasant land. But today the sceptered isle is more septic island. The freedom to work anywhere in the bloc – one now lost to Britons. The freedom of access to a market of half a billion people, now also lost to Britons.
For years Johnson, the disheveled political magus, was the golden boy of Britain’s Conservative Party. A favorite of comedy shows; the faux bumbling of Johnson delivered Brexit and a landslide general election win.
According to his sister, Rachel, a young Johnson said he wanted to be “world king.” As an adult he’s had to settle his ambitions at being Britain’s head of government. And he stopped at very little to achieve that aim.
But in June Johnson’s political crown slipped over face when his Conservative party was wiped out in two by-elections.
He has survived one vote within his party to unseat him. But may soon face another as Tory back benchers are reportedly trying to change the rules – meaning he could be kicked out in another confidence vote inside 12 months.
These domestic travails may explain his passionate interest in Ukraine. But he’s studiously avoided any mention of the essence of its fight with Russia which is, deep down, Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union.
Meanwhile Britain is struggling with the near implosion of an airline industry facing cancellations of international flights and luggage mountains at Heathrow Airport. The legal system is in disarray as barristers go on strike over claims that their net earnings are below the UK’s minimum wage. Railway workers have staged walk outs and threatened more. Teachers too are on the verge of taking action as inflation surges ahead of wage increases.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says the UK economy will grow at 3.6% this year and not at all next year. Only Russia will do worse, the 38-country organization says in its latest report. It’s shrinking at 4.1%. But it has the expenses of invading Ukraine and the consequences of punitive international sanctions to blame.
Britain’s economic malaise can’t all be blamed on Brexit. Global growth has slowed due to Russia’s “unprovoked aggression” the OECD says. It’s slumped to 3% this year and is expected to dwindle to 2.8% in 2023. Covid-19 has taken its toll too.
But the UK’s GDP growth was the highest in the G7 a little over a year ago.
Its slide to 19 out of 20 in the OECD rankings of G20 countries must be partly attributable to the supply chain chaos, slowed trade, shortage of labor across the board and decline in investment which has followed Brexit.
For all his crowing about being the prime minister to break the political deadlock and “Get Brexit Done,” Johnson’s government has failed to secure a trade deal with Brussels.
On top of that his government has published a bill that will tear up the one deal it has managed to do with the EU, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Johnson himself negotiated and signed.
Doing so will almost certainly breach international law. Plans to impose tariffs on steel imports to the UK risk breaking World Trade Organization Rules. And risks a trade war with steel-producing China, India and Turkey.
Incensed by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which stopped Britain sending asylum seekers from England to Rwanda, Johnson’s government is now threatening to leave its jurisdiction.
The World Trade Organization (WTO), the child of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was a very British vision. The Northern Ireland Protocol is a British-EU treaty intended to secure the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Ripping into the fabric of these contracts undermines Britain’s standing in the world.
A British Prime Minister’s threat to leave the ECHR, a court the British helped set up to establish a pan-European legal system to prevent atrocities in Europe in the wake of the Second World War, must seem bizarre to Ukrainians.
They’d no doubt love a bit of ECHR right now.
Ukrainian investigators will seek the help of international organizations to pursue alleged war criminals. It’s as committed to joining international organizations like the EU as Johnson is to leaving them.
Indeed it’s Ukraine’s desire to join the EU that provoked the revolution against pro-Putin anti-EU president Victor Yanukovich in 2014.
That same desire is probably the biggest reason for Putin’s invasion. Though his stated excuse for a brazen abuse of international law was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and stop the country joining NATO.
But a democratic, free, EU member state on Putin’s doorstep with a substantial Russian-speaking population is the sort of personal existential threat that must conjure up the images of Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s ignominious demise. No dictator wants to end their rule with a bayonet up the backside.
“We all know the Ukrainians are willing to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with the European dream,” Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President said.
That’s not a cause Johnson can understand. And he doesn’t ever mention it. Instead, at the NATO meeting in Madrid this week he’s talking of “allies – all allies” needing to “dig deep” and meet NATO’s needs with additional defense spending.
It’s not a new argument and one NATO members will listen to.
But not from a British Prime Minister who’s in trouble at home and cannot be trusted to keep even written promises abroad.